Recently, one of my friends was set up with a man her age, who shared the same ethnic and religious background. Despite these similarities, and character accolades from others, upon seeing his picture, she was immediately disappointed.
In many ways, he was a male Mary Ann Evans.
However, she chose to push past her initial repulsion and go out with him.
And, she had a great time. They’ve been out several times since.
Throughout my two and a half year dating foray, my experience has shown me what Henry James already knew, and what my friend recently experienced—repeated exposure to someone, regardless of physical appearance can lead to attraction; chemistry is largely based on similarities in personality, intellect, character, and values; and our love for someone beautifies their external appearance.
Science backs this up. When we discover someone’s similarities to us, which we assess through recurring encounters, we perceive them as more attractive (Beaman & Klentz, 1983; Klentz & others, 1987). Additionally, the more in love we are with someone, the more physically attractive we find them (Price & others, 1974), and the less physically attractive we find others of the opposite sex, despite the fact that these others are objectively more attractive (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989; Simpson & others, 1990).
Yes, I know this data is decades old, however, considering our society’s obsession with physical perfection, our instant gratification affliction (we’re seemingly crestfallen when we’re not immediately attracted to someone), and the advent of online dating, (where the next greatest catch is a swipe or click away and where we’re quick to dispose of someone purely based on their appearance), it might be good to revisit this research.
(Side note: I've fallen victim to all of the above ills).
Now, don’t get me wrong, physical attraction and chemistry is a must. I’m not denying this, nor the importance they play. However, perhaps we need to reframe the expectations that lie behind these words; perhaps we need to let Henry James remind us that a beautiful interior creates a flawless exterior.
So, ladies (and gentlemen), write this down (cue Van Wilder):
When we’re inspired by someone’s goodness, when we’re captivated by their intellect, the fact that they’re prematurely balding, ten pounds overweight, or that they only had Invisalign rather than legit braces, doesn’t seem to matter as much. When we’re moved by someone’s kindness or intoxicated by their knee-slapping sense of humor, getting over a snaggletooth or a bizarre mole constellation doesn’t seem as daunting.
At the end of the day, chemistry is only sustainable if it’s internally motivated; if we’re attracted to the inner workings of our current or potential mates. When we fall in love with someone’s brilliance and compassion, when we hitch ourselves to someone with comparable morals, motivations, and passions, that someone automatically becomes more attractive, despite their actual external appearance.
As one of my recent students astutely pointed out, “Beauty does not come from beautiful, shiny, and glittery things, but rather beauty is seen within the heart through acts of kindness, love, and compassion, for these things are truly beautiful.”
*Picture taken from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/george-eliots-ugly-beauty.
**Studies taken from Myers, David. Social Psychology, p. 411-412. McGraw-Hill, 2013.
***It’s only fair to inform you that my friend is no longer dating the particular gentleman referenced in the beginning of this post.